Rising Power: Women Leaders Emerge in a Time of Civic Uncertainty
Courtesy of Columbus Monthly
By Dave Ghose
January 31, 2021
EMH&T’s Sandy Doyle-Ahern and the Columbus Urban League’s Stephanie Hightower step up, while Cardinal Health’s Mike Kaufmann maintains a lower civic profile than his predecessor.
The Leader of the Edge Sisters
Sandy Doyle-Ahern smiles when she hears a description of her as a “strong voice.” Her reaction: “I never know how to interpret that.” Does it mean she’s making an impact? Changing opinions? Annoying people? The answer might be all of the above.
What’s not in doubt is Doyle-Ahern’s growing civic influence. The president of the New Albany engineering and surveying firm EMH&T has been a longtime advocate for affordable housing, a cause that grew out of her involvement with the Columbus YWCA, where she’s served on the board of trustees for more than a decade. But her impact is spreading as her community involvement expands. She joined the Columbus Partnership in 2018 and was appointed to the Columbus Downtown Development Corp. and Columbus State Community College boards this year.
No major economic power base has fueled Doyle-Ahern’s rise; EMH&T is small by Columbus Partnership standards, employing about 330 people and generating about $60 million in annual revenue. Instead, it’s been her energy, commitment and steadfast belief in her causes. When civic leaders talk about her, they use terms such as “forceful,” “outspoken” and “takes no prisoners.”
In 2022, the Partnership is expected to announce an initiative focused on diversity, equity and inclusion. Two male Partnership members, Curt Moody of the Moody Nolan architectural firm and Mike Kaufmann of Cardinal Health, are leading the effort, but Doyle-Ahern, a co-leader of an education-focused subcommittee, is a player, too, civic leaders say. “I’m good with challenging us,” Doyle-Ahern says. “If we’re going to really be what we say we want to be, then we’re probably going to have to be a little disruptive.”
Doyle-Ahern also created a more informal vehicle for shaking up Columbus. In February 2020, she and several other Columbus women leaders began getting together informally to bond and talk about social justice. They started calling themselves the “Edge Sisters,” because what they were doing felt edgy. At the time, not many organizations in Columbus were interested in delving seriously into racial injustice.
Through the pandemic, the multiracial group kept meeting virtually every week, with sessions growing from the allotted one hour, to 90 minutes, to two hours, as participants talked openly about their experiences with racism, their personal struggles in a difficult year and their ideas for making Columbus a better place. The group hosted a virtual session with “White Fragility” author Robin DiAngelo in August 2020 and a cocktail hour welcoming new women leaders to Columbus in the fall of 2021.
The Edge Sisters boast an impressive roster in addition to Doyle-Ahern: Donatos’ Jane Grote Abell, YWCA Columbus’ Christie Angel, Ohio State’s Trudy Bartley, Jeni’s Splendid Ice Cream’s Jeni Britton, AEP Foundation’s Janelle Coleman, the United Way of Central Ohio’s Lisa Courtice, the Crane Group’s Tanny Crane, Fifth Third Bank’s Francie Henry, the Columbus Urban League’s Stephanie Hightower, Columbus Auditor Megan Kilgore, KIPP Columbus’ Hannah Powell and Huntington Bank’s Sue Zazon. They remain an informal network without titles or bylaws, but Doyle-Ahern is unquestionably the lead sister.
“We’re not trying to check some box,” Doyle-Ahern says. “We’re not a club. It’s not an organization you can join. It’s just, we’re in positions where we talk about the community, wanting to make it stronger and better, and we are willing to look in the mirror ourselves to become better.”
A Revival at the Urban League
The 2020 George Floyd protests changed Columbus’ priorities—and gave a boost to a veteran nonprofit leader. Today, seemingly everyone in town wants to connect with Columbus Urban League CEO Stephanie Hightower. She’s got more access to the city’s business, political and civic elite than she’s ever had before—and she seems to be making the most of it.
Hightower is no overnight success. After all, she was the head of the Columbus Board of Education from 2001 to 2005. Since taking the reins at the Columbus Urban League in 2011, civic leaders say she’s breathed new life into the historic civil rights organization. She built strong relationships with two Columbus corporate bigwigs, Huntington Bank CEO Steve Steinour and former Nationwide Insurance CEO Steve Rasmussen. Huntington donated $1 million to the Urban League to help it establish what now is known as the Huntington Empowerment Center, which features a minority business assistance center, a clothing social enterprise and a science and technology education program. Nationwide, meanwhile, played a key role in bringing the National Urban League’s 2018 conference to Columbus.
But more doors are open to her now. She’s working closely with the Columbus Partnership on its diversity, equity and inclusion efforts. In recent months, she’s secured public funds for business stabilization loans, rental assistance and parental enrichment programs. The Columbus Urban League also received a $500,000 unrestricted investment from the Columbus Foundation. Hightower has called the money a “game-changer.”
Hightower’s racial justice message hasn’t really changed over the past two years. Columbus is just listening more closely now. “She’s become the voice,” a civic leader says.
Mike Kaufmann’s Power Lapse
Mike Kaufmann doesn’t completely ignore civic affairs. In fact, the CEO of Cardinal Health co-chairs an important committee at the Columbus Partnership that’s focused on diversity, equity and inclusion, and he is a widely admired champion of underrepresented groups in business. But some civic leaders say Kaufmann’s focus is too narrow. “He’s been active in DE&I work but almost nothing else,” an insider says. To be sure, the leader of the Dublin health care giant has a lot to deal with in his day job; Cardinal faces major legal and financial challenges that stem from lawsuits that accuse the company of helping fuel the opioid crisis. But some civic leaders still believe the head of Ohio’s largest corporation by revenue needs to have a bigger civic footprint in Columbus, and they fear Cardinal is returning to its old ways, before Kaufmann’s predecessor, George Barrett, increased its community presence.
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